Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games have always been exceptional from a design perspective. Few games before and after have had a tighter balance of rhythmic melee combat, and predator styled stealth systems. It’s become cliché to say that the games make you feel like Batman, but it’s an apt description of what those games are. What’s lost in the praise for both of those gameplay systems is why those games flow as well as they do.

Because if you were to judge those mechanics on individual terms, they wouldn’t be anything special. Sure, the combat has some great force feedback, but that's nothing new to anyone who has played other 3D brawlers. The stealth isn’t as unforgiving as something like Thief or Splinter Cell in their heyday. Not to say these mechanics are “bad," as that would be an incorrect assessment, but more that the game isn’t exactly winning people over on the depth of its mechanics.

No, what makes Arkham Asylum and Arkham City special on a gameplay level, to me, has always been the tight encounter designs and the pacing. You rarely do one thing for too long, and you don't get bored of it. The games know how to properly escalate their combat and stealth encounters, and leave you hanging each time without it feeling rote. After all, if it was just combat-to-stealth-to-combat-to-stealth, you’d notice a pattern.

Mixing those games up with environmental interactions, or indulging the player in moments of visual splendor like the Scarecrow sections, kept those games varied. And it’s exactly the lack of that kind of attention to detail, variation, or pacing that makes Arkham Origins feel like a drop off in quality from its predecessor. WB Montreal may have gotten the code for the Arkham games in terms of mechanics. Hell, they may have even been given the keys to the formula. But they don’t understand the subtleties that made those games fantastic.

Too often Origins simply has Batman going from one combat encounter to another. Again, for large stretches of this game it’s rarely boring, because the combat mechanics are satisfying. Getting into a proper free-flow rhythm still makes you feel like a complete badass. But, because the mechanics have never been the deepest, they simply cannot carry an entire game without the game becoming mind-numbing.

The final stretches of the game escalate into a bunch of enemies being thrown at Batman and him having to deal with them. And it's all in the same usual way. Strike, counter, use a stun move here, drop a shield guy there, and deal with a dude with a gun here. Instead of feeling like a brutal fight for Batman’s survival, it’s a wearisome affair because of its sheer monotony. A lot of it can be mitigated with the addition of the new shock gloves, which essentially act like a rage meter/devil trigger for anyone well versed in other brawler/action games.

But that essentially should show you what’s wrong with the encounter designs as a whole. When Asylum and City threw so much at you, it felt like a proper progression of everything you had been taught as a player up to that point. In Origins, these instances are only there because the developer can justify it by giving you a crutch to stand on. It doesn’t mean the finale is a challenging sequence, but a laborious affair. 

The other thing that hurts WB Montreal’s effort is the predictability of a third Arkham game. While Asylum and City had the benefit of throwing surprises and feeling fresh, Origins just feels like, “Oh, they made more Batman.” Now more Batman is still more than enjoyable, because the base mechanics are still satisfying for what they are. It is, however, predictable, as you are playing a bunch of gameplay scenarios you have seen before, and seen done better.

Though to be fair, let’s not treat Rocksteady’s works as flawless golden calves. While those games excelled in the pacing department, they always did leave you a bit unsatisfied in the boss fights, with the caveat being that the Mr. Freeze fight is still one of the more clever fights in the Batman franchise. It's a fight that Arkham Origins actually tries to imitate on a basic level at the end, but again completely misses the point of why it was enjoyable.

So now that I got that contradiction out of the way, the other boss fights Arkham Origins are actually pretty fun. I wasn’t fond of Asylum’s routine of giving me a big villain in Batman lore, and then that villain being relegated to the background, while I fight henchmen, and then throw batarangs. It’s not gratifying. You would think that, given some of the ridiculous powers Batman’s villains have, there would be a clever fight involved.

In contrast, in Arkham Origins the fights require you to get your hands dirty. No, they aren’t the most complex or the most difficult fights, but they feel like proper escalation, as opposed to the buzzkill that were some of the boss fights in Rocksteady games. Deathstroke’s fight is highlighted by mostly countering his attacks, but it’s a glorious visual display of badassery. It looks and feels like two well-trained fighters going at it. Another highlight includes a fight against Copperhead, a venomous character who poisons Batman before the fight.

While some might dismiss her fight as just a standard showdown, it’s well executed when you do it. Because Bruce is hallucinating, he sees multiple Copperheads and has to essentially fight all of them. But the boss only takes damage if you hit the correct one, so the fight itself becomes a delicate balance of timing your counters while finding the right target.

Little moments like these showcase why some of Batman’s villains are formidable foes for him. It’s exactly why the Scarecrow moments were so memorable in Arkham Asylum, and why Mr. Freeze is an enjoyable fight in Arkham City. When you get gun shy about having Batman fight his enemies because “Oh, of course Batman would win," you just rob those characters of any perceived threat.  It's exactly what makes the boss fights a laudable aspect of the game, if only for selling the notion that Batman faces foes on an even playing field. 

From a narrative standpoint, WB Montreal had their moments. The game opens in a Gotham in the midst of a powerful snow storm during Christmas Eve. The crime lord Black Mask has put a bounty on Batman’s head, hiring some of the deadliest assassins (like the aforementioned Deathstroke) to bring The Bat down. In between, you get glimpses of exactly when the Joker (oh right, surprise! It’s not a surprise) becomes infatuated with proving a point to Batman, and why Arkham Asylum itself became necessary in Gotham.

So no, it’s not a deserving entry in the Arkham lineage. It’s too poorly paced and mind-numbing on its way to the finish line to match up with its predecessors. But, let’s not overthink this. At worst, this is only an above-average action/adventure game from WB Montreal. It’s disappointing because its predecessors were so good, and not because the game is filled to the brim with failures. 

It’s not a death stroke to the legacy of the Arkham franchise. It’s just a game that doesn’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessors. It’s more than worth a playthrough if you want some more Batman in your life. If you want a truly deserving successor to the Arkham games? Wait till 2015. 

Final Score: 6/10

 

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